I had my yearly performance review/annual appraisal today. I know a lot of developers (and non-developers!) who treat these with a very dismissive or laid-back attitude. A lot of the time it’s because it’s seen as a “box ticking” exercise with little obvious benefit to the appraised. Another common attitude I’ve seen over the years is that the outcome is already decided before the meeting, often on personal or emotive reasons rather than an honest and clear-eyed look at how the preceding twelve months have gone.
I’m not someone who sees the annual appraisal this way. As someone who has been on both sides of the table at different times, I view the appraisal as an important milestone in the year, and should be treated as such. If you don’t take your own appraisal seriously - particularly in the preparation for it - then how can you expect others to? In the rest of this post I want to talk about the appraisal, and my thoughts around how to approach it (from the point of view of the appraised in this case - maybe next time I’ll do the appraiser viewpoint)
In my experience the appraisal is a good opportunity to do three things:
- Confirm to yourself what you’ve achieved over the last year - and maybe more importantly - remind your manager of it. Managers are not omnipotent. They don’t necessarily know or remember every little victory you’ve had. So remind yourself, and remind them.
- Look at the trajectory you’re on and where you’re headed over the next year. Is that where you want to be? Is that where your manager wants you to be? What do you want to achieve?
- How do your colleagues see you? Where does that fit into the above two points? Make sure you get some honest, constructive, feedback from co-workers.
The important piece is that this isn’t just some onerous process which is mostly for the benefit of HR. An appraisal is guaranteed one-on-one time with your manager to have an open and frank discussion about you and your career. Not just the job you’re doing now, but also what you’ll be doing next and beyond. The appraisal can be thought of as the regular status check on your career ambitions.
This year, my appraising manager isn’t who I directly report to on a day-today basis. They used to be closer to me in the reporting structure, and they chaired my promotion panel earlier this year, so they’re not unfamiliar with me - but they don’t necessarily know the fine details. For example, they knew I had been looking into training and development activities, but didn’t specifically know I had completed four certifications in the last few months; they also didn’t know all of the impact I had been making on my current project - so I had to recount those stories, backed up by the feedback from my colleagues.
It’s supposed to be an honest discussion, so I make sure to touch on the things I feel didn’t go so well - not to dwell on them, but to acknowledge what could have been better and that I am or have been thinking about ways to improve for next year. Showing self-awareness and openness to identifying, accepting and working on your own failings is an underrated skill, in my opinion, and it’s generally stood me in good stead over the years
In return my manager highlighted some areas of feedback that I had glossed over in my own reading, chiefly around leadership skills and my capabilities as a leader. It’s odd; I’m a lead developer who can guide a team to a goal, but I never really see myself specifically as a leader. Cheerleader for the team members, maybe! Yet here I was being asked to think about my leadership style and if there were any leadership-oriented training I would like to do. I hadn’t considered it before the meeting, but maybe I do want to start thinking about what comes after the full-time technical roles.
Finally, I make sure round out each appraisal by asking the appraiser to tell me exactly where they see how I fit into the organisation and what it is they expect from me. Normally you’ll have a sense of this from throughout the discussion, and there’ll usually be a written version of this after the appraisal, but I find explicitly asking the question has some benefits:
- It lets you know immediately if you’ve been successful in getting your own message across about the year.
- Generally it will give you the more “unfiltered” version of your appraiser’s thoughts. We can’t always help it, but often there will be a difference in how people answer a question directly in conversation with someone, versus how we write it in a document which might be read by others.
You want to use your appraiser’s response to judge where you go from here. It should inform and set the tone for what you do in the year to come.
I won’t give you the response I got to this question, but I was definitely happy with it. It was positive, constructive, and gave me ideas for the coming twelve months. It told me that where I want to get to is well aligned with where the organisation would like me to go, while also suggesting steps to bridge into what comes after the short-term plan.
And that’s great. Because it meant that the work I put in for this appraisal - and the previous appraisals too - meant that I’ve been able to carve out a space where I can be fulfilled in the sense of controlling my own career progression and what I want to do, while also keeping myself in tune with what the organisation wants and needs from me.
So I implore you: don’t write off the annual appraisal process. Engage with it, learn from it, and use it to your advantage as another tool you can use to build your career.